Independent Periodic News and Analysis
Number 373, May 18, 2007
On the Web at http://www.nygaardnotes.org/
This Week: A Double Issue on Values and the Media
1. “Quote” of the Week
2. More on Terrorist Attacks from Two Weeks Ago
3. Values and the Media, Part 2: How Power Influences One’s Values
4. Values and the Media, Part 3: Values Inside the Newsroom
5. Values and the Media, Part 4: Who Are the U.S. Journalists Of Today?
This issue of Nygaard Notes became a Double Issue without any planning on my part. This series on Values and the Media (Part 1 of which appeared last week) is a part of my diabolical Master Plan to explain why we have the media we have. My theory is that there are all sorts of economic and social and political and other forces that elevate certain people into positions of power while marginalizing other people, all in the interests of the Powers That Be. It’s a complicated story, I’ll probably have to write a book to get it all in. This series is one part of it.
I’ve taken a stab at all of this before, in Nygaard Notes #348, back in October. That article was called “Media and Propaganda, How it Happens, Part 5: Profits and Class.” But this week expands on that, and (hopefully) clarifies things a bit.
Note to subscribers to the paper edition of Nygaard Notes: Recall that the cost of a paper subscription is calculated by adding together the cost of printing and mailing. So, due to the recent postal rate increase, I will be revising your subscription period slightly, so you’ll get probably one or two fewer issues on your current subscription. Just so you know.
Welcome to the new readers this week. Let me know what you think!
Until next week,
“Quote” of the Week
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano a Democrat, is president of the National Governors Association, and last month, she was “touring the country in search of good national models for science and math education,” according to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). When she stopped in Minnesota on April 25th, she said something quite revealing, I thought.
She and Minnesota’s Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is the NGA's vice president, were being interviewed about math and science education by MPR. The interviewer said at one point, “I’d like to ask you about one thing that isn’t being done that you can imagine could be done to raise math and science results.”
Mr. Pawlenty replied, in part: “As a society, we all have to elevate the sense of urgency about appreciating math and science and technology and engineering as career fields, because that’s the way the world is moving. We’re not going to win this global competition because we’re the biggest—we’re not—in population. We’re not going to win because we’re the cheapest—we’re not. We’re going to win it because we’re the smartest.”
Then it was the Democrat’s turn, and Ms. Napolitano said:
“And I would add to that, in addition to the sense of urgency about this, a desire to align everything we do in education, so one fits into the next. That what we do in the K-12 system aligns with what institutions of higher education require of their incoming students and our institutions of higher education are producing students—“outputs” might be an indelicate, but accurate word to say—outputs that can go into the type of workforce we anticipate having.”
Nygaard Says: Congratulations to all of the outputs who are graduating this spring!
More on Terrorist Attacks from Two Weeks Ago
Two weeks ago, in my “Quote” of the Week, I was a little too brief with my comment, which caused at least one person to misinterpret my intention. I praised the NY Times for quoting an “expert” who said that “It is most curious that the areas where we have military operations have the most [terror] attacks.” I then commented on his comment, saying simply: “Most curious. Indeed.”
Alert reader Tom wrote in to say that this isn’t “curious” at all. He very eloquently pointed out that it was perfectly predictable that a drawn-out occupation of Iraq by the U.S. would lead to attacks of the sort that we now see every day. He’s right, and here’s a part of what I wrote back to him:
“Your note makes me realize that my postscript to the ‘Quote’ [in Nygaard Notes #371] was too abbreviated. What I meant to call attention to (but obviously did not do very well) was how ‘curious’ it is that a person who ‘studies terrorism’ would find it ‘curious’ that people under occupation would retaliate in ways that authorities declare themselves fit to call ‘terrorism.’ I should have said this, and your note makes me wish I had. Maybe I'll elaborate in the next Notes.”
So, here is my elaboration, a week later than planned: When I praised the Times, it was for finding a military expert who said, as their source did, that “These statistics suggest that our war on global terrorism is not going very well. It suggests we need to try a new approach.” What I didn’t say, but am saying now, is that I intended this “Quote” to illustrate how his comment (that it is “curious” that people attack their occupiers) serves to illustrate the limits of “respectable” questioning that is allowed to appear in the nation’s Newspaper of Record.
Thanks, Tom, for making me see how sloppy my little comment was.
Values and the Media, Part 2: How Power Influences One’s Values
There is a great, ongoing debate in our society about the relative importance of heredity and environment in human development. People sometimes refer to this as the “Nature vs Nurture” debate. It pops up all the time when we talk about how people “are” and how they got that way. Whether we’re speaking about addiction, or sexual orientation, or personality type, or level of achievement, people often wonder: Was she born that way? Or did she come to be that way by living in this society, this community, this family?
In this debate, I come down firmly on the side of “both.” I do suspect that each of us comes into the world with something. And I suspect that this “something” is then shaped by the way our lives are lived. As we go through life, Nature interacts with Nurture, and then we end up with whatever we end up with. And it’s always changing.
The question that interests me is this: What can we, as a society, do to make our lives better? Well, we can’t do anything about what people are born with, so that means that any efforts to make life better would be more productively focused on the world we live in, focusing on creating systems that support the best in us and that also withhold support from our worst parts. That’s a pretty philosophical point, so let me bring it down to earth by talking about values.
A belief of mine is that everyone, deep down, wants to think that their actions make the world a better place. Everyone? Yes, everyone. The Chilean writer and activist Ariel Dorfman made this point in an interview last November. The interviewer quoted Dorfman as stressing “that perpetrators of torture do not carry out their crimes ‘in the name of evil, but in the name of safety, the common good, the necessary things that have to be done so that we can all sleep quietly at night.’” I believe that any behavior, no matter how “bad” it appears, has a similar justification behind it.
Since everyone thinks that what they do will make the world a better place, they naturally will tend to support systems and policies that will help them do what they want to do. But, depending on how much power they already have—and power is correlated with social location, by which I mean class, race, cultural background, ethnicity, gender, and a variety of other factors—they will tend to value different types of systems.
Social Location and Collective Action
Here’s an example of how one aspect of social location—social class—might influence one’s values: One of the key differences between people from different social classes (often, not always) is in how they see collective action. As I said, everyone wants the maximum possible freedom to use their resources in the way that they see fit. For poor people, their power is increased when they work with others. For wealthy and powerful individuals, working with others has the effect of decreasing their power, since they have to share it.
People with great personal resources (that is, people from the managerial and owning classes), often for this reason tend to oppose “regulation,” oppose taxes, and speak often of Liberty. As in, “Don’t tax me, don’t regulate me, let me work freely in the Marketplace to do my good work.”
People with fewer personal resources, on the other hand (poor and working-class folks), do not have the power to affect the world as much through their individual actions. So, to the extent that they understand that they don’t have much individual power, Solidarity will often appear more important than Liberty. They will tend to favor policies that support unions, for instance. Or more-accessible public spaces. And so forth.
Looked at from the other side, limits to the power of poor people are reduced to the extent that we have strong regulatory policies that limit the ability of powerful individuals to block or obstruct the will of the majority. Put simply, limits on the actions of the powerful often increase the freedom of the less-powerful—who are, after all, the majority in our society, and maybe in every society—to act in their own interests.
The dynamic in which powerful people see their power weakened by democratic systems while less-powerful people see their power strengthened also plays out in the relations between nation-states. The World’s Only Superpower, for instance, works quite hard to delegitimize multilateralism, from the United Nations to the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court, to countless other attempts at united global action. Whatever the specific outcomes of a particular treaty or a particular alliance, U.S. “leaders” can see that the very fact of agreeing to abide by the decisions of a larger body would serve to dilute U.S. power to “go it alone.” Smaller, weaker countries, in contrast, could be expected to generally support stronger and more democratic multilateral organizations and agreements. And, in fact, they do, as I will talk about in a future Nygaard Notes on the Non-Aligned Movement of nations.
Values and the Media, Part 3: Values Inside the Newsroom
In the previous article I talked about how power influences values. Personal power is associated with what I call “social location,” by which I mean such things as one’s class, race, cultural background, ethnicity, gender identity, and so forth. One’s social location, in turn, often has a strong influence on the way we see the world, and on our values.
As one small example, consider the studies that show that people with dark skin tend to have different attitudes toward police than do light-skinned people. Studies show that, in addition to one’s racial identity, one’s social class also affects one’s perception of police, but to a lesser extent. So, it didn’t surprise me to take a look at the criminology literature and see that members of different racial groups and different social classes also have different ideas about proposals that have to do with curbing police misconduct.
In fact, the value placed on the very issue of police accountability is likely influenced by these same aspects of social location. And that’s an example of how, more generally, social location can influence our values. That is, who we are and where we come from has an influence on how we see the world and how we interpret it. Which brings us back to the “So What?” question that journalists deal with every day.
What is Important, and Why?
Remember that the journalist functions as a surrogate for you and me. That is, they go to places, and read things, and talk to people, and in general do things that neither you nor I have the time to do. They ask the questions, then tell us the answers they come up with.
Ideally, in the course of doing their job they would ask the questions that we need answered in order to best understand what is going on around us. Questions, in other words, that reflect our values. They don’t always do that, and part of the reason is because, increasingly, big-time journalists are not like you and me (as I spell out in the next article in this series).
I’ve said that one of the first questions journalists ask is the “So What?” question. That question has to do not only with whether or not something is important and deserves to go into the news for the day. It also has to do with the “angle” on that news. Given the homogenous nature of the journalistic profession in this country—especially at the highest levels, where the nation’s “news agenda” is set—it is predictable that there will be some values and assumptions that are generally shared within the profession. These shared values operating within a newsroom tend to have a profound effect on the “angle” given to a news story. In other words, the decision as to IF a story is important is what gets it into the news. The decision about WHY it is important determines what I have called the Media’s PET—that is, the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of a story. (See Nygaard Notes #267: “The Media’s PET”)
Some of the people from whom a reporter will hear as they work on a report on Social Security, for example, will make an argument like this: “We should have private, individual accounts in Social Security because it is better for people to have control over their own money than to have the government take that control.” To a person with a six-figure income, who likely already knows something about the stock market and likely receives a significant amount of income from interest and dividends each year, the argument might be one that makes a lot of sense. To a person from the working class, on the other hand, the individualistic and competitive environment of The Marketplace might seem like strange and frightening territory, indeed.
These different “gut reactions” will tend to lead reporters to ask different questions, or even to conceive of different questions. And their reporting will undoubtedly reflect that difference, especially if their editors are similarly located in the social hierarchy. Which, in the agenda-setting media, they almost always are.
In terms of values, those who place a high value on Solidarity will tend to analyze a press release or press conference or report on Social Security in terms of its impact on the social safety net. That is, “How does this affect our ability to take care of each other?” For such a journalist, sources who similarly value Solidarity will have their comments placed high in the article, the lede will emphasize that “angle,” and the more significant a proposal’s effect on Solidarity appears to be—positive or negative—the more likely it will appear at the top of the news. A reporter who values Liberty more highly will have a different “angle” on the story.
There are all sorts of other ways that the values of a journalistic institution are revealed in the Placement, Emphasis, and Tone of its articles. In a January 6th article in the Los Angeles Times we see it. The headline reads “Job Growth Boosts Fears of Inflation,” and the only sources cited in the article are from the investor class. A man from Moody's Economy.com “said jobs and wages were growing too fast for their own good.” The other source quoted (there were only two) was the president of investment advisory service Euro Pacific Capital. Neither of these men, I think it’s safe to say, earn “wages.” They likely earn six-figure salaries, as do the editors at our agenda-setting media outlets who, apparently, are satisfied that these sources represent “balance.”
So, are higher wages a good thing? Or are they a bad thing since they raise the “fear of inflation?” Well, for the working classes it would tend to be the former. For the upper classes the latter. So, if one wanted to simplify things greatly, one could say that this appears to be an “upper-class” headline, and article. The PET on the same story, were it to appear in a union publication, or in Nygaard Notes, would be quite different.
Values and the Media, Part 4: Who Are the U.S. Journalists Of Today?
The just-published book “The American Journalist in the 21st Century: U.S. News People at the Dawn of the New Millennium” is the fourth in a series of studies about who journalists are and what they think. The last look these author/scholars took was in 1992. In the first paragraph of the new book we find the following:
“The typical journalist [in 1992] was a White Protestant married male in his 30s with a bachelor’s degree. In 2002, this average journalist was a married white male just over 40, less likely to come from a Protestant religious background, and slightly more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree.”
In terms of social location—that is, class, race, cultural background, ethnicity, gender, and so forth—journalists appear to be a rather homogenous lot, and generally appear to represent the more privileged sectors of society. That is, the male, the “white,” the affluent, and the highly-educated. (Only 27 percent of United Statesians have gone as far as a bachelor’s degree.) I can’t find any data on disability, on sexual orientation, or many of the other things that help define social location, but some things can nonetheless be said about U.S. journalists and their social location.
The study tells us that some parts of the population are under-represented in the ranks of newspeople these days, notably women and people of color. The discrepancy becomes greatest when we look at “senior managers,” who are the people who supervise things and decide what gets in the paper: editors, publishers, news directors, producers, and so forth. While 85 percent of all working journalists are “white,” the number goes up to 97.5 percent when we look at decision-makers. In terms of gender, the ranks are 66 percent men, while the upper echelons are 75 percent men.
The authors asked the journalists which newspapers they, personally, read. By far the most widely-read paper is the New York Times, reinforcing its reputation as the nation’s Newspaper of Record. The most widely-read papers after the Times are the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and USA Today. Those five papers are the 5 highest-circulation newspapers in the country.
It’s very difficult to find out the salaries of the decision-makers and top reporters at the nation’s agenda-setting newspapers. As Salon.com reported back in 1997, “salaries are a sore—if not taboo—subject in American newsrooms. Case in point: Of the 17 journalists interviewed for this story, only six revealed their salaries, and only four would put their names on the numbers.”
[Besides telling you how hard it is to track this information, that last comment, in itself, is an inadvertent indicator of social class. Among working-class and poor people, one of the first questions we ask each other is the pay scale for each other’s work (if we have work). The casual question goes something like, “Whaddaya get for doing that?” In union shops, everyone works under the same contract, for wages that all agreed to, so they certainly know the wages of people in their bargaining unit. It’s only in the middle and upper classes that such subjects are sources of embarrassment, or whatever it is that makes them “taboo.”]
Salon.com goes on to quote Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, who says, “Many of us [at big city papers] are well-compensated these days.” Salon continues: “Kurtz worries that as reporters move to the suburbs and send their kids to private schools, they lose touch with the people they cover: ‘We have to break out of our cocoons and walk the streets a little, rather than relying on cell phones and faxes.’ [he says].”
Back in the year 2000 “New York” magazine gave some numbers on what the New York Times pays their people. At that time, copy editors earned from $70,000 to $120,000. Mid-level editors came in between $110,000 to $250,000, “while those closer to the top net $300,000 to $400,000.” The magazine went on to say that “Reporters' salaries are established by the Newspaper Guild, so while their pay starts out high—$70,720—it doesn't increase [all that fast] peaking after decades at around $120,000. Columnists, however, are not members of the guild, so, depending on the luminosity of the star, pay ranges from $150,000 to $350,000.”
My Hypothesis: Tying It All Together
So, what’s my point with all of this, in these four articles the past two weeks about values and the media?
I am arguing, first of all, that one’s social location influences one’s values.
Secondly, I say that journalistic decisions are influenced by the values of the journalist.
Thirdly, that’s why I think it’s an important issue that the highest reaches of the journalistic establishment, the people who make many of the key daily decisions about what is news and what it means, are composed almost entirely of “white” people who are highly educated, quite affluent, largely male, and in general represent the most privileged sectors of our society.
And, finally, these people are embedded in a system that is not primarily concerned with providing democratic access to information, but instead is primarily concerned with getting people to look at advertising. I think there is a problem here.
For purposes of disclosure, is Nygaard Notes any different? In some ways, yes. I am male and “white.” But my education consists of high school plus a little junior-college training, and I consider myself, by income and upbringing, to be a member of the working class. There’s more to my identity than this, of course, but those are important things to know about me, or anyone. And, perhaps most importantly, Nygaard Notes is not advertising-based (thanks to you, dear readers!) so it is not embedded in the same system as is the corporate media.
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